Pentagon: U.S. Limits Some Osprey Flights In Japan, Continues Others

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Osprey aircraft are seen at Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture.

WASHINGTON/TOKYO (Reuters) — The U.S. military unit which had a V-22 Osprey aircraft crash off the coast of Japan is not carrying out operations but other aircraft will continue to fly after undergoing safety checks, the Pentagon said on Friday, even as Tokyo has said it is concerned about continued Osprey flights.

Japan, a key U.S. ally, had sought the suspension of all non-emergency V-22 Osprey flights over its territory after one fell into the sea on Wednesday in western Japan. Japan’s Coast Guard has said one person was found and confirmed dead, and the search for the remaining seven aboard continues.

Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh said that outside the unit that had the crash, all other Ospreys in Japan “operate only after undergoing thorough maintenance and safety checks.”

“We have already started sharing information about the accident with our Japanese partners, and have pledged to continue to do so in a timely and transparent manner,” Singh said.

She added that Japanese and U.S. leaders had good communication and were in constant dialogue

The Pentagon said on Thursday that it was still flying Ospreys for now, and that it was not aware of any official request for their grounding. The cause of the crash is under investigation.

Asked about that statement, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, said Tokyo had “officially” made the request.

“We are concerned that despite our repeated requests, and in the absence of sufficient explanation [from the U.S. military], the Osprey continues to fly,” he told a news conference.

The Self-Defense Forces (SDF), which also operates Ospreys, has said it would suspend flights of the transport aircraft.

Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa said she had directly asked U.S. ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel on Thursday to confirm the safety of Osprey flights before further flights were carried out.

The U.S. embassy in Japan declined to immediately comment.

The deployment of the hybrid aircraft in Japan has been controversial, with critics of the U.S. military presence in the southwest islands saying it is prone to accidents.

Pacifist Japan hosts the biggest overseas concentration of U.S. military power, with the country home to the only forward-deployed American carrier strike group, its Asian airlift hub, fighter squadrons and a U.S. Marine Corps expeditionary force.

Robert Dujarric, a scholar at Tokyo’s Temple University, said Japan was very sensitive to residents’ concerns about military operations, which date back to Japan’s defeat in World War II and its subsequent reliance on the U.S. for security.

“They think that if it looks like the U.S. and Japan are not sufficiently investigating this, it is going to put problems on deployment because in Japan, unlike what happens in other countries, the local communities have an impact on what type of assets are deployed,” he said.

Dujarric said that he did not expect the issue to “blow up” into a major diplomatic spat between the allies, who have been forging closer ties in the face of China’s increasingly muscular military stance in the region.